Supporting the Arts in Western Massachusetts and Beyond

November 23, 2009

Barber & Tchaikovsky

Springfield Symphony Orchestra
Symphony Hall, Springfield
by Debra Tinkham

Kick off your shoes, put your feet up and relax for a quick review of the Springfield Symphony Orchestra's 66th season gala performance with Maestro Kevin Rhodes, now in his 9th season, and guest Janet Sung, performing Samuel Barber's violin Concerto Op 14, on a c. 1600 Maggini violin.

Sung's youthful appearance made it inconceivable that she could be so elegant, so emotional and so talented. The story behind this Concerto is that Barber was commissioned by a man to write a good piece of violin music for his adopted son. As the tale continued, Barber sent two of the three movements to the young violinist and they were considered "too simple." The third movement - to get even - was technically difficult. Sung performed this sweet but complicated masterpiece with ease and grace.

The Allegro (first movement) pushed Sung and her violin to the limit in high tones. The Andante (2nd movement) started with a long break for Sung, while absorbed in the tension between the oboe and strings. Finally, the Rondo - presto (very fast) was electrifying, with some very fancy finger work. Without a doubt, Sung deserved her standing ovation.

Tchaikovsky's Symphony No 3, Op 29 in D Major offered five movements of motion, diversity, broken chords, small doses of melody, divvied up and bouncing around to various instruments. Tchaikovsky was often faulted for his predictability but Symphony No 3 is anything but predictable. Rather, it reflects the composer's world of darkness.

"Rhodes Reflections" stated "… four of Tchaikovsky's most major works rarely get played. Among those is tonight's Symphony Nr. 3, The Polish."

Again, the audience at Symphony Hall thanked Maestro Rhodes for his energy and optimism in putting it all together and bringing such talented musicians to Springfield.

November 15, 2009

Shangri-La Chinese Acrobats

Mahaiwe Arts Center, Great Barrington, MA
by Amy Meek

The Shangri-La Chinese Acrobats thrilled and delighted the large audience of the beautiful Mahaiwe Arts Center with a show that successfully combined amazing acrobatic feats with both colorful spectacle and humor. The troupe, which was comprised of young performers who displayed immense skill and agility, took the audience into a magical world and gave them a glimpse of Chinese cultural tradition.

Some of the highlights of the show included a chorus of female acrobats who made use of props such as spinning disks and candles to demonstrate their amazing strength, balance and flexibility. They contorted their bodies in superhuman ways while spinning and holding the objects and balancing them off different parts of their bodies. In one number, the performers were roller skating on a platform using extreme speed and precision to keep themselves on balance while getting into many formations. In "Awesome Adagio" a boy and girl danced together, and he lifted her high above his head while she balanced on his shoulder on the tip of her toe.

The use of bright colors in the show helped to create an exotic atmosphere, especially in the number "Diving Daring Do," which used five acrobats inside three Chinese dragons to enchant the audience. They made the dragons come alive and took the audience into a timeless experience of Chinese tradition. The use of scarves, flags and bright costumes also enhanced the theatricality of the performance.

Finally, the humor that the troupe used made the show a pleasure to watch. They used audience interaction and alternated the intense acrobatic moments with moments of comedy, never taking themselves too seriously. This show was truly a magical and awe-inspiring journey into an evening of suspense and wonder.

November 14, 2009

Schumann & Brahms

Hartford Symphony & Hartford Chorale
The Bushnell, Hartford, CT
by Terry Larsen

So many love choirs, orchestras, and the great musical works that feed them, with the monumental “Ein Deutches” Requiem being one of the most cherished. The instruments and vocals all meet with the other necessary element of the ritual sharing of sonorous beauty -- the audience. These are people who hope to leave those great halls changed, at least for the moment; and somehow better for having been there.

The Bushnell's intimate Belding Theater was set for just such an experience. The event had the added appeal of being an audition for the post of Musical Director of the Hartford Symphony by guest conductor Constantine Kitsopoulos.

The orchestra and chorale were very well prepared for the pairing of Romantic era works on the bill. The orchestra performed both pieces concisely, with dedication to the score and an understanding of the style of the period. Although there were some of the inevitable balance issues that occur when voices and instruments occupy the same time and space, the chorale and orchestra performed admirably throughout the Brahms. Both soloists sang beautifully: Mr. Deas with fine diction, a compact, expressive power, and rich timbre; Ms. Forsythe with a lithe, well supported line that floated beautifully above the accompanying orchestra and chorale.

That being said, this reviewer was a bit disappointed by both performances, reluctantly laying the responsibility on the shoulders of Kitsopoulos. His direction seemed bland, without passion or real conviction. His gestures and demeanor were square, perfunctory, and did not anticipate from moment to moment the changes in dynamic, velocity, and emotion demanded by works of this period. There was no sense of urgency in the story telling. He made no compelling demands on the performers to aspire to that ineffable moment that transcends the requirements of the page and the beat pattern. Despite the polite standing ovation offered by the audience, I left the hall with a somewhat puzzled feeling that I must have missed something. The forces were very much in place and a beautiful was moment at hand, however, Kitsopoulos did not seize the opportunity to bring it all to life.

November 12, 2009

Til Death Do Us Part/Late Night Catechism 3

CityStage, Springfield, MA
through November 15, 2009
by K.J. Rogowski

CityStage's "Late Night Catechism 3" confirms what most audience members already know: nuns are really funny people. This one woman show featuring Kimberly Richards as everyone's archetypal nun, has the theatregoers participating and laughing out loud from the moment she steps on to the stage and brings the entire house to a respectful hush with just "that look." And from there it's all down hill for those who are late for class, rustle papers when they should be paying attention to Sister, talk among themselves or, (perish the thought), chew gum in class! Evil doers beware, there's a Nun on the loose, and she's got your number!

The keys that make this show such a roaring success are: one, it is a classic flash back for anyone who ever stepped foot in a fifth grade classroom complete with pop quizzes, stern looks and reprimands for every and any offense, or misstep. Second, it is as much stand up comedy as it is a play, with Richards using local towns and current events as part of the act, having ongoing interaction with the audience and having a witty quip for every interaction. This Nun is "working the house" like a pro while reminding her audience that she is, indeed, the person in charge in this classroom. "You will sit up properly and pay attention and you will laugh." For those who can rise to the occasion and actually quote chapter and verse from the Baltimore Catechism, there just might be an appropriate, yet modest reward. So, for those up for an evening of divine audience participation comedy just say "Yes, Sister," and move to the front of this comedy class for laughs.

November 10, 2009

Mistakes Were Made

Hartford Stage, Hartford
through November 22, 2009
by Shera Cohen

Hartford Stage has a deserved excellent and long-running reputation of presenting quality productions - in all areas including costumes, special effects, sets, acting, and direction. First and foremost, however, is play selection. Certainly, no one anticipates that every audience member will enjoy every play mounted at Hartford Stage. That is an unrealistic hope, not only in Hartford, but for all theatre companies. That said, "Mistakes Were Made" singles itself out, unfortunately, as the play that puts a crimp in a long list of years of A+ work.

You can't win them all, and "Mistakes Were Made" has many mistakes. Plays about plays usually don't work. Save for "Noises Off" (a hysterical comedy at HS last season), the dialogue is too inside, with the playgoers either unsympathetic to the characters or not understanding the roles. Another general problem is that many audience members do not wish to attend a one-actor piece. There is an offstage female voice - a woman who does appear once for a minute - and a couple of fish, but they don't count much. Yes, there are the exceptions; i.e. Hal Holbrook has become synonymous with Mark Twain. In this case, the character is a theatre producer (Felix) with Will Lebow in the role. While Lebow makes a monumental effort and does yeoman's work, the script is not sufficient enough to warrant his labors. Felix is a fast-talking, used-car salesman in show biz. His specialty is schlock shows. The entire play is a series of phone calls with soliloquies directed to the fish interspersed. "Mistakes" tries to combine Bob Newhart's exasperation (the rotary phone has been replaced) with Neil Simon one-liners. Neither work very well.

Playwright Craig Wright has excellent credentials. In many ways, this seems to be a first draft of a play that could go somewhere. The story builds and adds moments of drama, but these are only teases. Fleshing out the plot along with glimpses of substance earlier in the dialogue will help this play immensely. Billed as a comedy, there are some audience smiles and chuckles.

November 1, 2009

Piecemeal - The Frankenstein Musical

Majestic Theater, West Spingfield, MA
through December 6, 2009
by Shera Cohen

"Piecemeal" has taken a known entity - the story of Frankenstein - and created a humorous, loveable, musical prequel. The Majestic presents local playwright Howard Odentz's version of how Dr. F., Igor, the Monster, et al came to be. Not only did Odentz write the play, he composed the music. Perhaps one of this young man's best talents is his sense of humor with lyrics.

The set is dark with a brick-like haunted house center stage. Dry ice flows thick, bolts of lighting appear. The staging is exactly what it should be, complete with graveyard, damsel in the belfry, and the very important "lab-or-a-tory." Period costumes and coifs, eerie sounds, and body parts strewn about add to the expected macabre tone. Accents are British, but sometimes hard to understand by audience members.

However, most of the major elements are unexpected, which makes "Piecemeal" a pleasure to see. This is not an overdone plot, but one that takes twists and turns from opening number to finale. The main characters are not what audience members would expect either. The focus is on Igor (remember Marty Feldman's "walk this way") as a child who becomes an adult. What a horrible life he has, yet he has dreams that he pursues. He's a Gothic "Rocky," and we root for him. Nick Gilfor (young Igor) is so precious, and Scott Zenreich (adult Igor) is an excellent actor who can also sing well. As if there isn't enough going on, toss in a love story as well a few stuffed animals.

Music abounds throughout, with nearly every song carrying the plot forward. While the story and set bring to mind images of "Oliver" meets "Sweeney Todd," the score moves from honky tonk to 50s doowop to soulful melodic ballads. The cast includes many with skilled, trained voices; i.e. Luis Manzi, Frank Aronson, Laura Lites, and R. Steve Pierce. This is Pierce's first time at the Majestic. His demeanor, voice, and movement create his stylish fop character. "I Love to Sew" is a showstopper. Zenreich and Lite's dramatic and tender duet brings romance into Act II. And Zenreich's "Choices" replicates "Rocky's" run up the steps.

Most of all "Piecemeal" is very funny. Mary Shelley's Frankenstein would burst his stitches enjoying this new musical.